We Teach Driving Like Your Life Depends On It

A roundabout route to traffic safety

By Steve Wallace, Victoria Times Colonist, December 14, 2009

Vehicles drive on the new traffic circle on 37 street and Glenmore Trail S.W. in Calgary, Alberta on October 4. Photograph by: Leah Hennel, Calgary Herald

Why are traffic circles and roundabouts becoming so popular? The answer is that they reduce costs and increase safety on our roads.

The average standard streetlight intersection, with all the latest technology, costs in excess of $500,000. The maintenance of these intersections is astronomical compared to the regular traffic circle or larger roundabout. There are some exceptions to the above cost structures –such as when very expensive property must be acquired — but the newer developments that plan for such changes in traffic flow are relatively inexpensive for developers and cities.

European drivers think we are very slow to adopt what has worked well for them since the Second World War. The traffic circles in Edmonton have been working well for several decades, and even the most ardent opponents of the change to circles now admit that it was for the better. Edmontonians generally agree that the circles are not always the answer to traffic congestion and conflict, but they do work in most situations. Lately, it must be noted, some traffic circles have been removed and replaced by timed streetlights manipulated by a central control system.

Planners and developers should note that the single-lane circles work beautifully, whereas the multiple-lane circles and roundabouts have a higher crash rate than single lanes.Bicycles and pedestrians can be difficult to include in these systems, especially when there are multiple lanes, since they move at much lower speeds than the vehicles. There are many more cyclists on the road on Vancouver Island than in Alberta, especially in winter. Cyclists are more at risk in traffic circles, and this problem must be addressed. There are successful examples of how cyclists, pedestrians and vehicles can co-operate at traffic circles, but when it comes to our own Island, we would be well advised to go slow and let the learning curve develop before overloading the typical driver; especially since cycle and scooter traffic is expected to increase exponentially in the next few years.

ICBC is so keen on the roundabouts and circles that it will fund a municipality to the tune of $100,000 toward the conversion or installation of roundabouts and circles at troublesome crossroads. Whether we agree with this type of funding or not, it is a very laudable goal that ICBC is pursuing, namely the reduction of death and injury at intersections where 55 per cent of fatal accidents happen. Many progressive local governments have a program to fund an intersection trouble spot each year over a several-year period to lower the risk of collisions causing death and serious injury.

The design of the circle is really what makes it a success or a failure. There is no need for high curbs or different elevations at all. The simpler the better is the best advice to developers and neighbourhoods. Paint some directional lines and get drivers looking where they want to go and we will all be safer. A roundabout or circle can be a very inexpensive solution to a big problem.Properly designed roundabouts will reduce traffic delays by 65 per cent by eliminating the leftturn wait time and not having to stop for a red light or right-of-way. The average speed in a
roundabout is about half the speed of an intersection of equal traffic volume.Author Tom Vanderbilt presents the above statistic and other research in his book, Speed. The problem with roundabouts — big circles — is that they take up more space than does a typical city intersection. This is why many towns have adopted the smaller traffic circle as a solution to the lack of space.

One note of caution: the right-of-way rules for traffic circles and roundabouts are different and can confuse the typical North American driver. (These differences will be explained in next week’s column concerning how to use the circles and roundabouts safely and effectively.)

Steve Wallace is a member of the College of Teachers and the owner of Joan Wallace Driving School on Vancouver Island and in the Interior of B.C.
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